Over the past three months alone, residents of Estonia have been scammed out of more than €1.2 million. Investment scams continue to proliferate, and the ongoing war in Ukraine has not seen a significant reduction in the volume of Russian-language phone scams being conducted either.
While previously it was known that major call centers from which phone scams were conducted were located in Ukraine, according to the web constable of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), these scams have continued even after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began.
"What we currently know is that fraudulent calls are coming from abroad, but from where, exactly, we can't actually say," PPA Capt. Maarja Punak told ERR on Thursday. "According to the latest news, such call centers have been discovered in Latvia and Lithuania too, for example. In other words, the fact that they have previously been uncovered in Ukraine doesn't mean that that is the only place where they are located; the scam network is actually quite broad."
According to Punak, the sites of such call centers are constantly changing as they relocate frequently. The most prevalent scam, in any case, remains the same.
"In terms of phone scams, where someone claims they are a representative from the bank or of Google, for example, these have remained the same throughout — the script they're following has remained the same," she said.
Targets of the scam are told that there is something going on on their computer and it has to be taken over quickly, and are told they need to download Anydesk, a remote desktop application. "People then download it and as a result end up having their money taken from them later," she added.
According to the web constable, investment scams are prevalent on platforms such as Tinder or Facebook, where scammers will reach out and start talking to potential victims about investing.
"They tell people they are major investors and have made huge profits, but are willing to share their tips and tricks, inviting them to give it a try too," she explained. "The saddest thing we're seeing in these cases is that people will take out quick loans to invest in these scams. Which of course means that they end up losing out on their money and are on the hook for paying back the quick loans on top of that as well."
Not just the elderly falling for it
The elderly are not the only ones falling victim to these scams, however. Punak noted that the latest cases have involved people in their 40s and 50s, and while there was a recent instance of someone more than 90 years old getting scammed, there are younger victims as well.
"Believing scammers isn't an age-dependent thing, although younger people may be more aware," she warned. "But there are certainly young people that manage to be convinced as well. Especially when it comes to investment scams, which often start with a Facebook ad, for example, or via contact in which you've unwittingly started talking to someone on Twitter and they suddenly start to talk to you about investing. In other words, younger folks are actually at risk as well."
While scams are usually conducted in Russian, there have been instances of people losing money to English-speaking scammers as well. Estonian, meanwhile, is primarily used only to initially establish contact.
"There have been cases where it starts off with a few sentences in Estonian, and then they say that someone is going to call from the bank but all the Estonian-language customer service representatives are busy," Punak described. "Then they ask if the person is willing to speak in Russian instead. In other words, they try to build trust with even just a single sentence in Estonian, giving the impression that they care a great deal and that this is urgent."
A PPA spokesperson added later that another increasingly common scam is posts primarily on Facebook in which people are offered the chance to participate in a drawing organized by Swedbank where the grand prize is a new car. The post then directs targets to fill out a form which provides scammers with info they can later use to contact the victim again, misrepresent themselves and then, after gaining their trust, either empty the victim's bank account or take out quick loans in their name.
According to PPA figures, last year, Estonian residents were scammed out of a total of €7.2 million via phone and online scams.
In the first three months of this year alone, victims have been scammed out of more than €900,000 in investment scams and more than €375,000 via phone scams. Another type of scam involves notices being sent to targets indicating that they have a package waiting for them, and that in order to receive the package, they have to click on the link included in the message and pay for it.
"We've already seen more than 20,000 such cases in which people have lost [money] as well," Punak said. "In other words, we're talking about very large sums here."
Editor: Aili Vahtla